Blood is thicker than water. Originally used in 1180 in the German fable Reinhardt Fuchs (Reynard the Fox), the commonly used proverb is an interesting one.
On the one hand, it means that family should be considered more important than friends. On the other, when compared with the Arabic proverb “blood is thicker than milk”, the same meaning is entirely reversed, claiming that those who have suffered a common trial, or share a “coven” are closer and more vital than family.
Discussing the concept of working for a family business, in most circles, will reap many shades of the same response. In short, they insist, it’s a bad idea. Too close for comfort.Family businesses can and do go sour, but when the formula works, it really works.
Nepotism has become a dirty word. An odd reality, considering that centuries ago, humankind was known to pass down skills like carpentry, blacksmithing and shoemaking through the generations. Where does the negative undercurrent come from? Why do we consider working with your family a cop out at the least, or at its worst, destructive to personal growth and family relationships?
On the surface, looking at mom-and-pop shops from afar, the sentiment is understandable. A reported 70% of family-run businesses ever started will shut their doors before the second generation gets a look in, and a further 50% of those who do make it through to the children do not survive to see the hands of the third and fourth generations.
Lest we fail to mention the heightened risk of internal politics: the family unit has a certain structure, based on emotional and biological connections, which differs from the logical, strategic approach that any business adopts to become, and remain, successful. The two are not typically symbiotic systems, and enmeshing them can make things rather complicated.
There are, however, success stories that actively prove that this combination of emotion and strategy, family and business, can work -- and work well. Of all of South African business, 80% is estimated to have some sort of family ownership involvement. While a large percentage of family-run businesses in South Africa are small and medium-sized enterprises, 60% of all listed companies are reported to have had a level of family involvement, mainly in the start-up stage of development.
Businesses structured in the dynamic of family flourish in South Africa. To name a few? De Beers, Pick n Pay, Nando’s and Remgro all have two things in common; they are highly successful, and they are family-run.
It’s a lesser known fact that Kaizer Chiefs Football Club is a hugely family-oriented organisation. The club was started by Kaizer Motaung in 1970, on his return from playing for the Atlantic Chiefs the United States. Today at 71, Motaung maintains ownership and the running of the club as chairman and managing director, while his offspring support his lead. Of his five children, three have joined on the management side of the company, and one, Kaizer Junior, has followed directly in his father’s footsteps and plays for the club.
What does it take to run, or even work within a family business with international acclaim? One of the children, Jessica Motaung (42) who runs the soccer club’s communications, is definitely a woman with insider knowledge.
Jessica’s background lends itself far more to a position in front of the camera than one behind the scenes -- crowned Miss Gauteng, Miss South Africa First Princess and Africa’s Queen of Beauty in 1997, undoubtedly Jessica has been dismissed in the past as being nothing but a pretty face. But it would be an exceptional lapse in judgment to do this. Jessica has been marketing manager of the football club since 2003.
Working in a world as not only the founder’s offspring, but also as a female in one of the most male-led industries in the country would be difficult for anyone. Doing so for an internationally recognised brand, well, doesn’t seem to shake her in the least.
On the subject of working with the family, Motaung brings a whole different perspective to the party. Where most would identify it as a challenge, Jessica revels in the fact that she is able to spend more time with her family because they work together. Talking shop at the dinner table is discouraged in most instances, and the general rule-of-thumb in family business is to keep business and family matters separate.
This can be a bit of a challenge, Jessica confirms, “It certainly has its dynamics because sometimes it’s very difficult to separate. Even at home, during Sunday lunch, you want to talk about work but you want to have personal time, as well.”
Passion, it seems, is a strong connector in this family, that influences the way the company, and family members, work together. “Sometimes it’s tough because I see my boss at home, but that’s fun as well because our entire family has such a great passion for the business. It’s such a great part of our DNA and its part of who we are.”
Another of the South African game changers lies in the entrepreneurial giant, the Maponya Africa Group, which, too, happens to be a family affair.
Richard Maponya is credited with changing the face of and generating hope for the masses in Soweto. Born in 1924, he has faced lifelong challenges in fulfilling his entrepreneurial dreams, beginning with facing apartheid restrictions in the early years. The now iconic property developer sits amongst the top entrepreneurs in South Africa, and is father to one of the greatest family-run empires in South Africa, and Africa at large.
The group’s portfolio of companies includes household names such as Maponya Energy, Maponya Transport, PM Sports & Marketing, Maponya Business Technologies and Maponya Mining Division. Similar to Kaizer Chiefs, three of Maponya’s eight children, Charlotte (nicknamed “Chichi”), Solly and Godfrey are very much involved in the management of various Maponya business units.
Often it is said that when you are born into a family business, you tend to dip in and out of it throughout your childhood as part of your upbringing. The same can be said for Chichi, Maponya’s first-born, who began working in her father’s grocery shop at the age of six. Literally born into the business, Chichi was actually born in the shop’s backroom. The shop, based in Soweto, was seen as a vital hub for the community, where many gathered to socialise every day.
“Chichi is the closest to me. She has been a pillar of strength and keeps the Maponya group going.”
Today, Chichi is managing director of the Maponya Group and a fierce entrepreneur in her own capacity, who has expanded the reach of the Maponya and Nalesa Groups, with the assistance of her own daughter, Palesa. So, the Maponya legacy seems to have survived beyond the dreaded third generation jump, and shows absolutely no sign of slowing down any time soon.
Her take on the purported potential challenges that arise in a family business?
“In a way, the family side of things helps to smooth the business and operations side of things. When you don't agree and when you're upset, at the end of the day you have to talk to them as a family.”
While it is true that a large amount of family-started businesses don’t live to see a second generation, the same applies for most that are not family owned. Sure, some clashes are unavoidable, if not certain, when you are working with members of your familial clan, however, those that have made it work have not done so without the same hard work and determination that any business unit needs. Communication makes all the difference.